Originally published at Substack: 2/14/2021
I had a bunch of new project meetings this week, which inevitably lead to that sentence I hear all the time. Montana?! Oh! You’re so lucky to live there!
I am deeply, profoundly grateful for the life I’ve built here in this small town in Montana. But it wasn’t luck that got me here. It was a combination of claustrophobia and a burning drive to find a house. Some of my women friends describe feeling that drive about having children. I love kids, and nearly melted last week when one of the twin toddlers down the block held up his arms to be carried around my backyard, but I never felt that I had to have a child of my own or I’d die. I did feel that way about finding a house. And not just any house. A house I could pay off. A house I could fully live in. A house with a garden where I can grow food, and chickens, and fruit. A house in a town where at least some of the people were looking for ways to live outside the homogenized corporate norms. A house in a town with artists, and outdoors people, and in my case, an iconoclastic builder like Himself.
I went looking for this because I did not believe in the promise of corporate life. I went to California after graduate school in search of a job, but I wasn’t searching for a career. I was still trying to get an agent then, still trying to sell my novel. I thought writing would be my career. It was the mid-90s. We still thought such things were possible then. But even if writing was going to be my career, I knew it was most likely not going to pay the bills. I needed a job.
I remember driving up I-80 with Patrick one night, going to dinner with some people, and looking at all those tall buildings with lights left on overnight. There has to be a way into one of those, I thought. How hard can it be? Thousands of people do it every day?
I wanted a corporate job that was interesting enough, and had things like paid vacations and a 401K and health insurance. I had grad school debts to pay off, no one was going to leave me any money, and even as spinsterhood loomed at 35 I knew I had no intention of relying on a husband for money. I’d seen the disaster that had caused in my mother’s life, my Aunt Lynn’s life, my grandmother’s life (until the generation above her died, left her money, and set her free).
I didn’t want a career, I wanted to be some useful little cog in the machine so I could pay everything off, and find a place to live. A place I could pay off. A place I could hope to set down a tiny stake of self-sufficiency.
The Bay Area scared me silly. It’s lovely. The food is great. And oh how I miss produce, and flowers, and those little artichokes they sell in giant net bags in the Farmers’ Markets in the spring. But there were too many people on too little land. The temperatures were rising every year, and neighborhoods were burning even then. The sea was set to rise. And no one knew how to do anything. No one knew how to build anything or fix anything or grow food or butcher an animal.
Well, that’s not totally fair. I did know some people who knew how to do those things, but they were few and far between, and land prices had started to skyrocket already. There was no cheap land left to buy like my teachers Will Baker and Gary Snyder had done. I didn’t have grandparents in Sonoma. Those open ranch lands above our townhouse in Castro Valley were never going to be sold as anything other than more subdivision lots.
While my family was a disaster, I had two things working in my favor. One was that as people whose money was, as my mother liked to joke, “so old it’s all gone,” there was a certain disdain for striving, for careerism. This was a problem in graduate school, when I fundamentally did not understand how to curry favor, and was outraged that the only women who got the big fellowship at Utah were the ones who babysat for a couple of specific professors. But this disdain for careerism left a lot of room open for envisioning what kind of life a person might want to lead. In my family, success wasn’t defined by following a preset path. Of the nine of us cousins, who were raised like siblings, there’s a lot of variation in what we wound up doing. Two of us have PhDs, two are union guys (laborer and pipefitter). One runs such a good baby day care that her clients plan their pregnancies around her availability and one went to jail for a while, but got his act together eventually. One was an FBI agent, one runs a small trucking company, and Patrick was in the event business. None of us has ever been considered better than the others because of what we do for a living.
The other thing I had going for me was that we largely escaped the standard suburban upbringing. I have friends who grew up in a world bounded entirely by malls and swim teams and school and chain restaurants and group activities. It was an indoors life, a life of buildings and cars. The only suburb I lived in was Lake Forest, which is old, and very rich, and beautiful, and riddled with deep ravines that are small wildernesses. We had woods, and little creeks, and the Lake Michigan beach. And because my family was horsey, I grew up around barns and horses. There’s something very freeing about having spent much of your childhood terrified on the back of a large animal who is moving very fast through the woods. It teaches you right off that as a puny human you are not in control of the world. And eventually, as I grew legs long enough to have some effect on a horse, and gained skills, I also discovered the joy that is learning to work with an animal. I learned how to be in the physical world, and how to do things. I learned to go outside and entertain myself.
I keep making a category error, which is thinking that my subversive outlook on the world is the norm. When did we all start believing in the marketing? When did we stop having contempt for “aspirational” bullshit like luxury brands and the Yellowstone Club? I think it’s why the “you’re so lucky” comments bug me so much. What I hear when someone says that is envy for the aspirational Montana. The Montana of ugly orange log houses with “great room” windows like the prow of a ship, pointed at a “view.” The Montana of peeled log furniture and chandeliers made from elk antlers.
Whereas I actually live among the people who deal with the housefly outbreaks in your stupid great room, the one that you can’t heat in the winter and that fades your Pendelton blanket upholstery in the summer.
I didn’t move to that Montana. Although increasingly it has moved to me. The Paradise Valley is increasingly cluttered with ugly houses on small lots that chop up all the migration routes, that clutter up what used to be hayfields, and that are being sold to people who think it’s great that we have so few people of color here. Realtors are using that as a selling point. It’s deeply, fundamentally upsetting.
I moved to Montana nearly 20 years ago because I needed someplace I could still afford a house, and Livingston was in between bouts of being discovered. I came here so I could buy myself a house that I can live in and work in. A house where I can make things. I built myself a life where I can write some, and work some, and garden some, and go for a long walk with the dog. I’ve been preparing for disaster for decades. I didn’t think it would be a pandemic — I thought something else would break our fragile food system and the trucks would stop coming and we’d have to feed ourselves and our neighbors. I planted black currants and elderberries and rugosa roses in case we need the vitamin C.
Moving here wasn’t luck. It was a calculation. There’s a major river for water. There are beautiful mountains which I don’t thrive without. I’m not good in cities, which doesn’t mean cities are bad, but if I’d been locked down alone in the Bay Area or New York I’d be in big trouble about now. I never thought that our shiny world of eternal progress was real, or was going to last, or was in any way sustainable.
What I keep finding startling is that other people have not made these same kinds of calculations. That when the music stopped so many were stuck in houses they couldn’t live in, or cities that aren’t home, or some other limbo of modern techno-nowhere.
I think we’ll get out of lockdown again, but I also think pandemics are here to stay. I think the days of just getting on a plane are coming to an end. I’ve seen articles about people moving back to be near their families, because when push comes to shove, if you have that kind of family, that’s who you want. My friend Nina came back up here, and brought her five kids, the ones I’ve been lucky enough to get to help raise, with her. Right away. It’s the biggest reason they kept their house here during all these years E. has been building his career down there. They didn’t believe it either, that it could last, that the system was robust enough to survive a disaster. They’re my family and I’m grateful to have them on the other side of town. Even if we don’t see each other because pandemic.
I despair of our ability as a culture to cope with the climate disaster that is upon us. We can’t even get people to wear simple masks to keep from killing their fellow citizens. We can’t get them to understand that the masks work. How are we going to get anyone to make the kinds of large-scale changes we need to make? As pandemic hit, we were awash here in selfish white people driving RVs bigger than my first apartment in New York, towing an SUV behind them. It was like there was some urgent call to burn up the last of the fossil fuels as fast and as brazenly as possible. Accompanied by all the current political and cultural markers — the smirks, the bumper stickers, the hats.
I have no real advice or answers, although I do think it’s probably useful that this year most people learned how to cook for themselves. Maybe more people are thinking about where they live, about what constitutes a home. But mostly I fear that when this wave is over, everyone’s going to rush to “go back to normal.” They’re going to want to forget this ever happened.
We’ll have to wait and see how it’s going to play out. Livingston isn’t the town I moved to anymore. There are fewer artists and writers, and way more second home owners. We still have people who know how to do things though, including grow food and butcher animals. So far, we’re all working together to build a more resilient community. So far our sense of community is holding.
It isn’t going to be luck that saves us, or technology, but if anything sees us through, it might just be our communities.
At least I hope so.